There’s a moment near the beginning of Ad Astra (and glimpsed in the film’s trailers) in which we meet Brad Pitt’s suited-up astronaut as he’s scaling the the outside of the vertiginous ‘International Space Antenna’. When a mysterious and violent cosmic surge hits, he’s sent into a spiralling freefall from the Earth’s upper atmosphere to the ground far (far) below. It’s a jaw-dropping sequence; a prologue that hits you with staggering visuals and flawless, immersive sound design. In short, Ad Astra sets its stall from the off: this is meticulously crafted sci-fi filmmaking that’s absolutely worthy of being viewed on the biggest screen you can find.
And yet, although this stunning space odyssey from director/co-writer James Gray (The Lost City Of Z) is permeated by a handful of pulse-racing sequences such as this, don’t go expecting a full-on cosmic actioner. Combining the spirit of pensive sci-fi classics such as 2001 and Solaris with big, blockbuster-style set-pieces (much like Gravity and Interstellar before it), Ad Astra is surprisingly restrained, focusing much more on the inner struggles of one man than the colossal dangers facing the world around him.
That man is Roy McBride (Pitt), a celebrated and famously stoic astronaut (we’re told his heart rate has never exceeded 80 BPM on any space walk, or even during his aforementioned plummet) who’s tasked with completing an undercover journey to a Martian base. His mission? To try to establish comms with his long-lost dad Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) – an even-more celebrated (and presumed dead) explorer whose outer-space experiments could have caused the destructive power surges that are ravaging the Earth and threatening the stability of the entire solar system.
And so, what starts off as a world-saving expedition turns into a deeply personal and psychological one, as the scarred McBride is forced to confront the possibility that not only is the father who abandoned him nearly 30 years ago still alive, but could also be, well, a bit of a wrong ’un. “I don’t know if I hope to find him, or to finally be free of him,” Pitt’s character coolly ponders in one of his frequent (and ever-so-slightly pretentious) internal-monologue voiceovers; living in the considerable shadow of his father has left him “walled off”, he says. It’s an effect that keeps him calm and collected in space but unable to maintain meaningful relationships on Earth – as seen in brief memory-flashes of his ex-wife (played by Liv Tyler in a teeny role you can barely call a cameo).
Ad Astra translates as “to the stars”, which is pretty apt: Gray certainly looked to the Hollywood stratosphere to find a name capable of shouldering his delicately balanced spectacle. Enter Pitt, who carries the film with a brilliantly measured central performance as the sad spaceman on a quest for (inner) peace. Alongside his recent, much more animated turn in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, this is one of his best roles in ages.
If anything, McBride is a bit too walled-off, initially at least, making it difficult to connect with the character; thankfully, a second-act revelation, which quickens that usually controlled pulse of his (an effect echoed in the film’s thrumming soundtrack), gives Pitt the chance to reel us back in. Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland both pop up in brief but fairly perfunctory roles, but there’s no doubt this is Pitt’s show, one in which he’s single-handedly charged with both the dramatic heavy lifting and grounding the story – no mean feat given some of the high concepts playing out around him.
Make no mistake, there’s a lot of movie here. Pitt’s fantastic voyage boasts some impressive world-building, with a near-future that both feels lived-in and has something to say. From the Moon’s hyper-commercialised spaceports (“Just a recreation of what we’re running from on Earth,” notes McBride) to the sovereign state-owned “sectors” of Mars, it’s a logical and intriguing take on human colonisation. And then there are the set-pieces. The film’s episodic nature allows for some thrilling stop-offs – a fast and furious, Mad Max-style buggy chase involving marauding Moon pirates and a claustrophobic encounter with some unexpected foes onboard a Mayday-calling spaceship are just two of the highlights.
With a fictional universe so rich in detail (there are likely countless other stories that could be mined from this much source material), it’s probably a good thing that McBride’s relatively simple, introspective space quest offers a clear narrative through-line, even if it’s not massively emotionally engaging. If there’s a downside, though, it’s that – perhaps inevitably – the journey ends up being much more gripping than the destination. Once Pitt makes it past Mars and heads further into outer space and towards his own destiny, the film slows to an almost glacial pace, with a conclusion that’s much less satisfying than the events leading up to it.
Still, this is laudable stuff: clever sci-fi that’s chock-full of big ideas and human drama, painted on a huge canvas with every artistic department firing on all cylinders. Never mind to the stars – get thee to a cinema.